Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN) just unveiled Fire TV, a $99 HDMI streaming media player obviously meant to compete with the likes of Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) TV, Google (NASDAQ:GOOGL) (NASDAQ:GOOG) Chromecast, and Roku.
For reference, Roku's products range from $50 to $99.99, Apple TV also rings in at $99, and Google Chromecast still holds the bottom at $35.
Right off the bat, we can see Fire TV already shares dozens of the usual suspects, perhaps most notably including Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, Crackle, Showtime Anytime, Pandora, Veovo, YouTube, Watch ESPN and NBA League Pass. Through either Plex or Amazon Cloud, Fire TV will also let you stream your own photos, videos and music. To be fair, however, Fire TV is the only platform which doesn't have HBO GO yet.
And while it also doesn't enjoy the tiny HDMI dongle form factor employed by both Google's $35 Chromecast and the $50 Roku Streaming Stick, Amazon Fire TV is reasonably small at 9.9 ounces, and measures just 4.5-4.5-by-0.7 inches. That's closer to the latest iteration of Apple TV, which weighs roughly the same and measures 3.9-by-3.9-by-0.9 inches.
But it's not hard to offer up the essentials. So what sets Amazon Fire TV apart? Here are four key features available in Fire TV that Apple TV, Google Chromecast, and Roku each lack:
1. Beefy specs, intelligent software
First, Amazon crammed plenty of great hardware into its tiny device, which employs a quad core CPU with three times the processing power of Apple TV and Roku, a dedicated Adreno 320 graphics processing unit, 8 GB internal storage, and 2 GB RAM -- the last of which Amazon points out is four times the amount included in Roku, Chromecast, and Apple TV.
Of course, this doesn't mean everyone else won't eventually follow suit on the hardware front, but for now Amazon Fire TV seems to hold an edge.
If that wasn't enough -- and in a move strikingly similar to the predictive shipping model Amazon proposed earlier this year -- Fire TV also employs Advanced Streaming and Prediction (ASAP) software, which dynamically learns which movies and shows you like and gets them ready to watch in the background. In short, Amazon is attempting to spoil consumers even more by eliminating that annoying 10 seconds we're forced to wait for shows to buffer after we hit "Play."
2. Voice search (that actually works)
Speaking of smart hardware, Fire TV's included remote also has an integrated mic for voice search. Or, as Amazon describes it, "Voice search that actually works."
Keeping in mind the remote doesn't require line-of-sight -- something only Roku's $99 box shares -- you can just say the title, genre, actor, director, or whatever you want to search for. The voice command is processed through Amazon in the cloud, and Fire TV promptly brings up the results.
Don't believe it? Maybe the ever-weird Gary Busey will convince you:
Alternatively, if you already own a Kindle Fire HDX tablet, you can use also it to control or mirror content displayed by Fire TV. And you'd be right in saying this is very similar to what Google Chromecast does. Instead of "casting" your content to the television, however, Amazon requires you click the "fling" icon on your tablet. Fair enough.
Next, if you're a parent and own a Kindle Fire tablet, you're probably already familiar with FreeTime, which first further simplifies the user interface to reflect a more visually centric, kid-friendly design.
More importantly, Amazon FreeTime lets you create custom profiles for each child so you can choose the movies, TV Shows, apps, and games they're allowed to access. FreeTime also lets you set daily screen limits and restrict broader categories of content.
One caveat: FreeTime isn't quite ready for Fire TV just yet, but is expected to be available next month. In any case, it's a massive improvement over both the basic per-app passcodes offered by Apple TV, and the complete lack of parental control in Google Chromecast and Roku.
4. Thousands of games
Finally, by using either the included remote (for simpler titles) or up to four of Amazon's separately purchased $40 game controllers, Fire TV allows you to play more than 100 games. That currently not only includes old-school titles Sonic the Hedgehog and Tetris, but also more comprehensive games like Deus Ex: The Fall and NBA 2K14.
If that's still underwhelming, keep in mind Amazon is promising "thousands more coming soon." Many will be free, while others will be priced $0.99 and up.
Better yet, Amazon simultaneously launched new tools yesterday to help developers optimize their apps and games for Fire TV, which will only help accelerate the adoption of its new platform.
On one hand, FireTV might not put much of a dent in sales of Google Chromecast or Roku's lower-end devices, which both cater to more value-conscious crowds looking for an inexpensive streaming solution.
On the other hand, I do think these advantages will be enough to convince consumers to fork out $99 for Amazon Fire TV when presented other expensive options like Apple TV and Roku's higher-end products -- that is, assuming Apple and Roku don't respond in short order to improve their own value propositions.
Steve Symington owns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Amazon.com, Apple, Google A Shares, Netflix, and Pandora Media. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.